by Gareth Rees
The loud ping of a composite bat rings through a summer evening, signaling trouble.
St. Johns Longshots pitcher Michael Langlois was barely finished with his delivery of the game’s first pitch and already he had missed location, and now found himself staring down a missile heading right back toward him with incredible speed. Langlois threw his glove up to protect his face, sending the dusty yellow softball caroming off the tip of his leather mitt and into left field for a leadoff single.
The next two batters Langlois would face drew walks without seeing a strike, before the cleanup hitter, clad in gray basketball shorts and a green Buffalo Wild Wings T-shirt, drilled a towering home run clear over the left field fence where it bounced dangerously between traffic on southbound Little Road. Grand slam.
The first inning would end 4-0, but the Buffalo Wild Wings team would continue to add on, eventually winning 25-3, sending the Longshots home with their seventh consecutive loss.
The Longshots are the epitome of sport futility; their name far more accurately representing their chances to win each week than the style of their home run balls. In fact, since forming in spring 2012 in the Pasco recreational men’s softball league, the Longshots have failed to hit a single homer.
They also never win.
“We are literally the worst team in the league,” said catcher Brian Donahue. “We are dead last in runs scored and runs allowed. It’s embarrassing.”
The team was started by a group of friends looking for something fun to do in their free time. When they began, few of the players had any experience playing organized baseball, a fact that seemingly went unnoticed by the members of the Longshots as they embarked into their first season. None of them had any idea just how competitive adult softball could be.
Losing followed; with it came frustration and embarrassment.
“We thought we could just run out there and win,” said Donahue. “I don’t think we were prepared to be so terrible.”
The Tampa Bay area knows a thing or two about losing.
The 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers played a full 14-game season without tallying a single win, and would lose a record 26 straight games before notching the franchise’s first victory. The Tampa Bay Rays spent 10 years as the laughing stock of the American League East, consistently losing 90-plus games, before finally turning things around in 2008 under new ownership.
But those teams were full of professionals, being paid to continue playing despite the rigors and frustration of continued losing.
“Losing every week isn’t fun,” said first baseman Carlos Arevelo. “There were definitely times were I wondered why I keep coming out here each week.”
The 11 members of the Longshots form a disjointed semi-circle around the tailgate of a black Ford F-150 Super Duty, parked in the Mitchell Field Recreation Center parking lot. Arevalo is sitting on the tailgate, eyes glazed over, smoking a cigarette.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I’m pretty sick and tired of losing,” said Arevalo, unloading weeks’ worth of pent up frustration. At 35, Arevalo is the oldest member of the team and has taken on a role as de-facto coach.
“I don’t come out here to lose every week,” he said. “I’d rather spend Thursdays with my family than continue to play like this.”
The Longshots suffered a particularly ugly 36-3 loss that night. After playing the first three innings to a 3-3 tie, the Beef O Brady’s sponsored team exploded with a 17-run inning, fueled in part by a series of Longshots fielding errors.
Many of the games seemed to go like that. The Longshots would play well for two or three innings before one major mistake rattled their confidence and next thing you know a tied game or slim deficit was yet another blowout.
The tongue-lashing delivered on this night is in stark contrast from how team post-games went during most of the losing streak, usually revolving around beer and chicken wings. Continued losing had begun to take its toll on Arevalo and he let his teammates know it.
Arevalo singled out center-fielder Garrett Dunton, telling him that he will no longer bat leadoff because he failed to hit the ball on the ground once during the game and also dropped a ball in the outfield.
Dunton joined the team with zero baseball knowledge, but possessed incredible speed that quickly proved him a great asset on the base paths. He routinely beats out ground balls for singles and has been repeatedly told to avoid putting the ball in the air since he does not have any power and is significantly less likely to reach base with a pop up.
He also is very hard on himself when he plays poorly.
The next morning following the tough love lecture, Dunton tells other members of the team that he won’t play with Arevalo anymore, prompting Arevalo to let the Longshots know he will no longer be playing with them, and his brother, Louis, is also quitting.
Perpetual losing has claimed its first victims.
Despite the loss of their veteran presence, the team soldiers on. However, the Longshots have proven skilled at just one thing: losing.
There are more blow outs; 24-5 to Shenanigans Irish Pub; 18-6 to Cavalry Chapel 2; and a 15-0 shutout in which a different Beef O Brady’s team scores five runs in three separate frames. During the second inning, the Longshots loaded the bases with no outs on three consecutive singles, only to ground out to the pitcher three straight times and fail to score.
“It’s mental,” said left-fielder Daniel Endonino. “We can play great for a couple innings, and then we make a couple mistakes and everyone’s head is down and it all unravels.”
“They just have no energy out there,” said Chelsea Heijl, whose fiance plays shortstop. “Everyone gets quiet and it just doesn’t look like they are having fun anymore.”
“We’re going to win one day,” said Dunton. “We just need to keep trying hard.”
“If we could just get that first win,” said Donahue, “we’d start to feel more confident. I think we’d stop making the little mistakes and begin to really grow from there.
The ping of a composite bat rings through the October night.
Michael Langlois sprints out of the batter’s box heading towards first base after hitting a ground ball to the left side of the infield. It’s a close play but Langlois hustles and extends his foot to the bag ahead of the throw; “Safe!” the umpire calls.
The Longshots are trailing 8-4 in the third inning and their small contingent of fans, made up of girlfriends, wives and moms, don’t think much of Langlois’ leadoff single.
Dunton follows up with a double, and third-baseman Mike Childers draws a walk to load the bases. A confident team sees the rally brewing and seizes the opportunity. The Longshots however, are anything but confident, and consistently have found ways to squander these rare opportunities.
The next batter rolls over an outside pitch sending a helpless double play ball towards the shortstop, who fields the ball and–miraculously–slings it past his second-baseman and into right field, allowing two runs to score. Donahue doubles, Endonino singles, and suddenly the game is tied. An opposite field triple then gives the Longshots the lead. The first lead they had held in over six weeks, and the first lead they’ve ever had after two innings.
As the game entered the seventh inning (softball games are only seven innings long, but most of the time end in a mercy rule before then), the Longshots are hanging onto an 11-8 lead, and the players are starting to feel it. Some begin to think what they will do if they win this game, but don’t want to vocalize it and risk jinxing anything.
A deep fly ball to center-field is caught with a diving catch. One out.
A line drive is deflected by the third-baseman but fortuitously caroms right into the shortstop’s glove. Two outs.
A left-hander hits a weak ground ball that the pitcher fields himself and flips to the first baseman. Ball game. The Longshots win!
For the players of Cavalry Chapel 4, the sight must have been extremely confusing: The Longshots charging the mound, burying each other in a screaming dog pile of exuberance, as if they had just won the World Series.
The Longshots would lose their next three games, and finish the season 1-9, but to Donahue and the rest of the Longshots, the season was a success.
“On that night, we were superstars,” said Donahue.
“It made it all worth it,” said Endonino. “All the losing was washed away in that one instant.”